We were heading home to the UK from the Norwegian Arctic Circle and nearing the end of our annual off road pilgrimage. It was the end of January, a chilly -45°c, dusk at 13:30 and the winter arctic sun was setting in our eyes. Yet inside the cockpit of our modern Hilux, we were warm and making good progress southwards. In 4 wheel drive, the traction control was working perfectly on the thick ice laden road.
It was our tradition to use these drives to talk about our dream of a long term road trip. This chat on our journey from Norway was different. Our children had flown the nest and though we weren’t yet so old, it wouldn’t be long before we’d reached an age where we’d be ordering mobility scooters. Not our idea of an overland adventure.
So unlike in the past, this chat was not about a dream; we didn’t discuss how great things would be, where we’d go or what we’d experience. This time we were talking about a reality we were about to make happen.
I asked the question. “What are we driving on our round the world trip?”
You may think the obvious answer should have been the Hilux. After all, it was set for an overland trip with over-sized Cooper STT tyres, uprated suspension, winch, leisure batteries and a semi racked canopy on the pick-up. All we needed to fit was a roof tent and we were good to go.
So How Have We Ended Up With A Unimog?
Many years ago I was learning how to drive in deep sand across the Empty Quarter of the Saudi desert. Our support truck was a Mercedes Unimog. It was heavily laden and unstoppable. I’d never seen one before but was so impressed that from that day forward, a Unimog was my ultimate dream truck.
If I was going on a long term road trip, I was going to do so in a Unimog. So whilst I asked Angela what truck we’d travel in, I already knew the answer. I just needed to be conniving enough, to ask the right questions, and prompt where necessary, to ensure Angela also believed, the only vehicle we could do this in was a Unimog.
Of course, she knows me very well and humoured me anyway.
All that said, you all know that overlanding is not always full of sunny days, outside living and open camp fires. There are times when the rain is horizontal, the air is cold, damp and dank, the wind can chill your bones. All this can make living conditions feel utterly miserable, especially when you’re in a roof tent. So justifiably a 4×4 station wagon was out of the question.
A larger vehicle that would provide indoor living conditions was required. A commercial van would provide that. Whilst there are a few available that claim off road capability, in our experience, the reality is that they’re rough track capable; not off road. I wanted the ability to drive across a wet, muddy ploughed field if I needed to. In a rough track van, I would need to choose my route to avoid certain conditions, and I didn’t want the restriction.
Whilst my wife explained that avoiding muddy fields was a perfectly acceptable diversion, I still wanted the Unimog. By the time we reach Stockholm, we both knew I needed a Unimog.
Build or Buy?
Many of us spend much of our lives building our off road vehicles. We all visit shows, check out the latest gear, spend hours on the internet researching, drink countless beers with our buddies discussing what modifications we’re planning. It almost becomes the obsession and not the prelude of the extended road trip.
We discussed building our own camper on a Unimog base. Or we could try to buy a pre-loved model. For us, there was only 1 must have: a fixed bed. We could work around everything else.
After a couple of hours of internet surfing, and heading steadily towards the Danish border, we found a converted Unimog camper that was on the market. By the time we reached the Esbjerg port to board our ferry home, we’d booked a viewing for our return to the UK.
Mowgli our Unimog had the scars of both a hard life and long periods of outdoor storage. After a good check over, I saw past these issues. The key was that the chassis, engine and transmission were fine; we could quickly tidy the rest up. She had 28,000 miles on the clock. In Mercedes terms, the vehicle wasn’t even mechanically run in. The base vehicle, other than a factory fitted turbo was stock.
With a fully fitted camper including shower, toilet, fixed bed, gas cooker and oven, 12v fridge, extended fuel and water tanks she had all we needed. Although the microwave had to go!
So what did we get for our money?
6.7 tonnes of truck fun, that’s for sure! Mowgli was a standard flatbed 1300L, built in 1980 and taken out of German military service in 1996 with 9000 miles on the clock. She was converted to a camper in 2000.
She has a standard 5.7L 6 cylinder diesel engine and a factory fitted turbo giving us 139 HP and an awesome 363 NM of torques.
With 8 forward and 4 reverse gears, Mowgli has the ability to go from 2 wheel drive into 4 wheel drive with central diff lock. When the going gets tough, all round diff lockers can be engaged. These can all be changed as the wheels are turning and without any speed constraint.
At 2.2m wide, 6.7m long and 3.2m high Mowgli can wade up to 1m deep before we start getting our feet wet and has 440mm ground clearance due to her portal axles.
Off road, the Unimog is unsurpassed; steep approach angles of 46° and an even steeper decent capability makes the vehicle’s ability outshine the bravery of the driver. A 60° descent is very scary, but the Unimog just holds her own and slowly steps down. I have had her up to her axles in both sand and mud and she just crawls and inches her way forward. I’ve even seen Unimogs recover an 18 tonne lorry through slippery wet mud tracks and not even break sweat. That said, if we ever get her stuck up to her axles we’ll be hard pushed to self-recover.
The winch fitted on the front is only a 4.5 tonne electric Comeup winch with a 10 tonne dyneema rope. I have a snatch block to double up the winch capacity. Even so, being stuck is not a dilemma I want to find myself in.
All this performance comes with compromises. She is capable of 53 mph; cruising at 44 mph consumes around about 16.1 mpg.
To improve our driving range, we carry 560 litres of fuel which will give us about 2000 miles between fuel stops. We carry 300 litres of water which will allow us to stay out for 5-7 days before we need to collect water.
We’ve fitted 3 solar panels, harnessing 480 KW of power into our 230 amp hour batteries that supply the living quarters with both 12v and 240v ac.
After two years of ownership and in a range of extreme environments we’ve driven 35,000 miles, 10,000 of them off road. We’ve done 5 oil changes, repaired 2 tyres, replaced 2 springs, fixed 2 airline leaks and 1 fuel line leak and spent 400 nights sleeping in her.
Did we make the right choice?
The short answer is whoa yeh!
Living with a Unimog has its challenges. She does need regular maintenance and things occasionally do go wrong. With a worldwide Mercedes dealership, we should always be able to get help if necessary.
We have covered Eastern Europe, West Africa in the rainy season and are currently in Southern Europe and Morocco for the winter. Next year, we’re hoping to travel to Mongolia and then on to either China or Russia.
Of course, we could have easily travelled in a Hilux, camper van or even a ford focus. But for home comfort, off road capability and mechanical piece of mind, we made a choice that got us on our world journey swiftly and has made it so much more fun.
We didn’t need a Unimog for 99% of our trip, but because of her capability we were able to choose some extreme off road routes. And what’s more, we know we have much bigger smiles on our faces than any other vehicle could ever muster. Just as well, because it takes ages to drive anywhere!
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